Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Northern Exposure, Part II: Ferry Tales

As you, My Faithful Bloglodytes, may remember (If not, see “Northern Exposure, Part I: Who Was that Masked Man”), I had just begun a five-day, cross-Canada press junket to promote a program to reach children about the evils of drugs, bullying and other social causes via a series of custom Spider-Man comic books. The whole enchilada, though, was in danger of literally not getting off the ground due to a blizzard of Brobdignagian proportions hitting Toronto moments before my scheduled flight to Winnipeg, the next stop on the tour. I was hustled onto the last plane given the thumbs-up for take-off before the city shut down. Rudolph would have told Santa to stick it in his sac…

But take off we did, all the while buffeted like the riders in the last car of the Coney Island Cyclone throughout our ascent. Thoughts of the nonfiction bestseller Alive filled my mind. I started looking at the other passengers like I was at a Vegas buffet. Finally, thankfully, the plane broke through the storm’s ceiling and leveled out in tranquility. It seemed like hours, which was ridiculous, seeing as Winnipeg was less than two hours away from Toronto by air.

Summer in Winnipeg

The rest of the flight was uneventful. The skies around Winnipeg were clear, though the several feet of snow on the ground indicated that wasn’t the case in recent days. But what the city lacked in bad weather that evening, it made up for in mind-numbing frigid temperatures. It was 20º below zero Fahrenheit, and I’m not talking wind chill. Chief Stephen told me that the temp was typical for that time of year. “Typical for that time of year!” It was only December 4!!! What was typical for… oh I don’t know… February 1? Forty below?! With the nonchalance with which he presented the statement I’d swear he bathed in liquid nitrogen. My mind just couldn’t grasp those kind of numbers. Unfortunately, my body was having no problem—I was freezing my tuchus off!

And the inhospitable environment was apparently not lost on the locals. There would be no one telling me during my visit, “20-below? Pshaw! We’re used it,” before stumbling through the permafrost like a Yeti. The thoroughfares were barren of pedestrians. Not even an errant inuit or one of those odd ducks we all know that spends their winters in shorts, because they “love the cold,” was visible.

Meanwhile, at the Winnipeg bus stop...

In moments, Chief Stephen and I arrived at the hotel. Why the Chief was checking in was beyond me. Wasn’t he the Chief of Winnipeg? Perhaps, his abode lay on the city’s outskirts and staying closer to its center would be more conducive to his making the early-hour press conference the next morning. I had nought but my humble NBA gym bag safeguarding the Spider-Man suit—I never traveled separately from the costume if at all possible.

I wasn’t looking forward to spending the next twenty-four hours without my teeth brushed. And my contacts were not the type you slept in. I took out and cleaned them every evening and enzymed them once a week. Remember, this was a few years before disposable lenses and daily removal and weekly maintenance was important for the health of your eyes and longevity of the contacts. Optometrists recommend that one does not keep the permeable slivers in their eyes longer than eight hours, and I was going on fourteen by this point, including a dehydrating flight. My orbs felt like raisins.

Fortunately, the hotel had disposable toothbrushes and paste. Actually, the toothpaste was incorporated into the design of the instrument. It was an odd little thing: shorter than an average brush and composed of a lesser grade of plastic, including the bristles. The paste was stored in a cavity underneath these plastic cilia and forced through tiny pores at their base when the implement was telescoped inward. The toothpaste wriggled up the same way Play-Doh squoze through the Fun Factory press. Alas, the maneuver shortened the brush by nearly an inch, which made holding the thing difficult, never mind actually brushing with it. And it wasn’t quite Natural Tom’s of Maine, either. It tasted like an after-dinner mint that had been hidden at the bottom of a coat pocket since the garment was worn the season before. But it was better than not brushing! I couldn’t bear facing my li’l fans with my breath smelling of cadaver. I even felt bad for the media.

As for my eyes… Blessedly, I had drops on me which, although not ideal, would keep my parched peepers lubricated enough so that my lenses wouldn’t permanently fuse to my orbs before I got to Vancouver sometime the following afternoon. It was still disconcerting to sleep in them, but I was so knackered from the day’s festivities, my worries were no match for exhaustion. At least I’d see more clearly in my dreams.

Despite awaking to a brilliant sun, any hope of a more humane temp—say 0º—were merely a pipe dream. It remained a “normal-for-this-time-of-the-year” twenty below. As Chief Stephen and I were ferried to the venue at which the press event would convene, I noticed that all the buildings were interconnected via enclosed walkways. From one skyscraper to the next, cross alleys and streets, were a network on conduits. The whole city looked like a giant Habitrail for humans. Chief Stephen explained that this was how people got around. All the buildings had underground parking garages—in fact, there was a whole ’nother world of shops, eateries and businesses beneath the streets. Winnipeggians (?) spent practically their entire winter months indoors.

It was then I noticed the eeriness of what would normally be deemed pedestrian areas—sidewalks, plazas, etc.—of the city. There weren’t even that many cars on the roads. Locals got inside as quickly as possible and stayed there. Well, when you live in an environment that can cause frostbite after a scant five minutes of exposure, it makes sense. The intense cold and dryness also made the snow seem like peppercorn-and-rock salt rough-ground dry marinade. A mere moment of the concoction whipping against my face felt as if I’d shaved with a cheese grater.

Kudos to the Winnipeg Free Press, the only paper in Canada to spell Spider-Man correctly

The event was much like the one at the Organ Grinder in Toronto, and held at a similar venue. Heck, it could very well have been an Organ Grinder franchise. Chief Stephen did the honors introducing me and I handled the onus of discussing my adventure in the comic and my role in the program with my usual aplomb before confronting the dreaded notepad holders and mic wielders. Thankfully, the children escaped unscathed from bullying reporters.

The trip to the airport was a far cry from the flight-from-Egypt-esque one the evening before. There was no teary farewell between Chief Stephen and I. As soon as the cab arrived and was ready—and by that I mean heat running at full capacity, passenger door open and aligned with the eatery’s entrance, driver standing by—I bid everyone adieu and sprinted out the front door, diving into the hack like I was dodging a sniper. As frigid as my departure from the Organ Grinder was—Spider-Man-ing through a foot of snow amidst whipping wind and snow—that split second in the arctic climes of Winnipeg clad in a paper-thin layer of spandex and bikini undies was worse.

My whirlwind trip across Canada next brought me to the mild northwest climes of Vancouver. The flight was long—three-plus hours—but blissfully uneventful. By the time I landed, I was a fog-addled, nigh 200-pound mass of flesh, suffering from 48 hours of sleep deprivation and 2000 miles of getting bitch-slapped by the weather and plane travel. Add to that inadequate toiletries which made my contact lenses feel as though they were sucking my soul out through my eyeballs; forced me to endure several teeth-brushing sessions with barbaric, plastic, flagella-tipped sticks coated with Beechnut-gum–flavored paste; and had me smelling like a Frenchman from lack of underarm deodorant; and so much as the plane running out of peanuts would’ve had me out of my seat chanting Attica! Attica!

My memories on that first day in Vancouver are understandably a blur. I think it was overcast—it may have been raining shortly before my arrival—but it was definitely warmer. The city reminded me of San Diego, but with a cold.

As promised, my bag was waiting for me at the Bell Captain’s station of the hotel upon check-in. I dragged my sorry ass to the room and had my Dopp kit out before the luggage hit the rug. Peeling my contact lenses off my tired orbs was like trying to get the address label off a magazine subscription. I swear it made the same sound as well. Unfettered, my peepers gratefully gasped for air. Then, I brushed my teeth for a good twenty minutes, basking in the soft bristles of Oral-B and the subtly minty sweetness of Arm & Hammer. An equally-long hot shower, revived me just enough to stumble to the bed and collapse, succumbing to a much-needed afternoon nap.

Before the CACP conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where I began my association with Eric and the venerable institution and where the Spider-Man custom comics program was solidified (see Chill St. John’s, Parts I & II), a similar meeting was held on the west coast in Victoria. Patrick, one of Marvel’s California-based Web-Crawlers answered the call of duty and is seen here with Chiefs Stephen (r) and Snowdon (l) and Deputy Bill Kerr (c).

I met up with Eric and his son Peter later for dinner. It was then that I also met Chief Bill Snowdon. I’m not certain how the police hierarchy works in Canada—heck, I’m not quite sure about how it works in the U.S.—but it was immediately apparent that Chief Snowdon held a spot in the upper echelon of the CACP. There was a gravitas and wisdom behind his eyes that belay a friendly, grandfatherly mien, the type gleaned from years in the trenches fighting the good fight and doing it well. His presence demanded respect, though he did not. He was actually loveable, the way an uncle is. Still, you had the sense that you didn’t want to be on his shit list. He reminded me of Broderick Crawford who played his share of lawmen, including Chief Dan Mathews in the popular 50’s television series Highway Patrol.

Separated at birth?

All that was meaningless. He was a good friend of Eric’s and thus one of the good guys. His base of operation was Victoria, British Columbia’s capital located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Though Chief Snowdon would be present for the next morning’s press hijinks, he would not be presiding—that honor being local police chief Bob Stewart’s—but he would be accompany Spidey on the Web-Crawler’s visit to the BC Children’s Hospital after the conference and afterward on the ferry ride to Victoria.

The press event proceeded as the previous two: Organ Grinder franchise or some such eatery hosting, much media, scads of excited kiddies, photo ops aplenty and great aplomb across the board. No kamikaze reporters strafing wee fans, nor any other hiccups of which to speak. The one major difference was the climate. It was blessedly pleasant—I would’ve walked to the medical facility!

Ace reporter Nosy Parker’s and Spider-Man’s rendition of “Summer Lovin’” was a big hit at the karaoke bar

The police cruiser that transported us was loaded beforehand with Eric, Peter and my luggage, as we’d be proceeding straight to the dock following Spider-Man’s visit to the hospital. I’d have to change into my civvies after I’d seen the kiddies. I certainly couldn’t do it in the car, what with Eric and Peter sharing the backseat and Chief Snowdon riding shotgun. He’d probably arrest me for public indecency.

As with my other visits to children’s hospitals, the occasion was filled with a dichotomous mix of cheer and heartache, but ultimately fulfilling on a level few will ever understand. Despite the promotional bent of the week’s activities, all salesmanship went out the window once I entered the hospital. This was all about lifting the spirits of kids undergoing a discomforting, oftentimes traumatic moment in their as-yet short lives. And by the joyous way many reacted to Spider-Man, I was assured of pushing aside the wee patients’ fear, pain and confusion, if only for a brief moment. I was happy to see that Eric and Chief Snowdon shared my views.

Throughout the dozens of hospital visits I made during my decade wearing the red-and-blue, I was always amazed at the politeness of the medical staff. They’d make the Goofy Gophers from the Warner Bros. cartoons seem like Naomi Campbell in comparison. It was nigh sycophantic at times. I realize they were showing me the respect of a guest in their workplace, but they save children’s lives, for goodness sake! I should be bowing to them!

As they sometimes mentioned, part of the reason for their behavior—other than just being incredibly selfless individuals—was that they seldom had celebrity guests visit. So when one did stop by, they were overly appreciative. I was shocked. How easy—taking so little time and effort—was it for a celebrity to pay a visit to a local children’s hospital? Was it the lack of media attention such a gesture would garner or simply a case of overlooking something like a hospital, which stands day in and day out, its workers doing their jobs without fanfare, regardless of media attention? Well, this was one celebrity who’d do anything he could—barring testing the latest serum, that is!

The best medicine...

This particular hospital tour brought with it a unique request. One of their patients—a ten-year-old who needed his tonsils removed—was so terrified by the impending surgery, there was no consoling him, and he refused to accede willingly to the procedure; that is until the doctors promised that Spidey would be waiting for him the moment he awoke from anesthesia. It was a risky move and one assuredly not taken lightly. What if another blizzard or other disaster delayed my trip or forced me to cancel altogether? He’d awaken to bitter disappointment and possibly a complete loss of faith in all his heroes.

There was no question I’d be there for the young boy, though the administrator who asked me did so in such a way as to suggest that the hospital would understand if I was too uncomfortable about agreeing. Lead on, MacDuff! My prestigious posse, however, were left behind. No one other than authorized personnel were allowed in post-op. This was an extreme exception. As with a burn ward, a surgical mask, gown and slip-on booties were required dress. But my handy-dandy Web-Slinging ensemble was already self-contained, so I entered the double-set of hermetically-sealed sliding doors sans hospital attire.

The area was dark; nought but a few fluorescent lights cast an eerie, milky glow from recessed sconces. The quiet was deafening; the rhythmic beep of monitors and swoosh of oxygen tanks, the only sounds present. I felt like I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to. Noticing my arrival, a nurse by the boy’s bed began whispering to him of my presence. A wise move. The lad came out of surgery not long before. having my spidery visage be the first thing he sees coming out of anesthesia might give him a heart attack. Still, I crept slowly toward him, and began waving and delivering greetings as soon as I noticed his eyes shift in my direction.

The boy was understandably groggy, like a child who’s fallen asleep in a car seat and must be lifted to be taken from the vehicle. “Hi, Spider-Man,” he croaked, moving his arm out to shake mine. It slid an inch or two, never raising above the sheets, before I took hold with my own.

“I heard you wanted to see me,” I said. “I’m so glad. I would have never found you in here. It’s like your own Batcave.”

Yes, I know, it may be sacrilege to reference the Distinguished Competition’s icons, but I’m pretty sure both DC and Marvel alike would forgive me in this instance.

And the smile—weak though it may have been—was worth it.

I went on to tell him how brave he was… and lucky! He’d be allowed to eat as much ice cream as he wanted for a couple of days. I had to be careful not to risk harming my heroic physique. Understandably, he didn’t talk much. I winced empathically every time he rasped. I still have my tonsils, and when I have a sore throat, it’s like I’m covered in paper cuts and dunked in lemonade every time I swallow.

The encounter lasted but a few minutes, before the nurse gave me the high sign that I should go. I told the lad the same, and he mumbled a goodbye, then drifted off to sleep. I crept out as quietly as I’d entered, wondering if the boy would think it all a dream and hoping that he remembered enough to know that it was not and Spidey had kept his promise.

I met up with Chief Snowdon, Eric and Peter and the visit continued. In the children’s play area—our final stop—I was surprised to see a photographer from The Vancouver Sun. As I mentioned, I am not enamored of using sick children for publicity purposes. Unfortunately, newspapers won’t run a photo ballyhooing a new social program, regardless of its import, without an emotional hook.

And of course, the child on which the shutterbug focused his attention was the one with the most in-your-face affliction: a ten-year-old boy, named John Irwin, whose wheelchair could not disguise the debilitated body seated therein. The photographer’s presence didn’t seem to bother John, whose toothy smile and wide excited eyes couldn’t hide the delight of seeing his hero. He certainly didn’t need to wear the Spider-Man hat balanced atop his head. Everyone could see this was a special moment for him. He even wore a shirt and tie! Knowing John’s amazing moment would be featured in the newspaper and the boy would experience the added excitement of being highlighted thusly assuaged any ill-feelings I had regarding the media attention.

The ferry trip from the Canadian mainland to Vancouver Island was a treat. My only experience with ferries was the one that transported New Yorkers between Staten Island and Manhattan, a pleasant thirty-minute affair that offered one of the best and assuredly cheapest views of the Statue of Liberty—a mere 25¢ roundtrip at the time!

The ferry that traveled from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay was a much larger ship. Cars, trucks, vans, commercial vehicles and buses alike packed the lower levels while their drivers and passengers, as well as additional travelers filled the upper tiers. The interior was much like that of the Staten Island variety: sparse, open spaces lined with long hard benches and the typical “refreshment” kiosk which served such standard fare as hot dogs, potato chips, sodas, newspapers and magazines. Where this ferry differed from its Gotham brethren was length of the trip—approximately ninety minutes—and the view along the route.

“A three-hour tour... A three-hour tour...”

With due respect to Lady Liberty, the panorama that greeted me on this aquatic journey was breathtaking. The Vancouver Island ferry meanders betwixt the many islands that sprout from the waterways en route; towering, forest-covered masses of all shapes and sizes, with the occasional homestead peeking through the trees and accompanying path to jetty and boat on the shore below. The late-afternoon sun was brilliant, accentuating the picturesque tableau before me. And the cool evening breeze was both chill and exhilarating. It was Mother Nature at her most awesome; the kind of moment that makes you feel so small in the scheme of things and yet more alive. It was just the spirit-rejuvenating experience I needed to get me through the final leg of the junket.

And I’d need it. I was scheduled to swing by an elementary school the next day. Don’t misconstrue; I enjoyed my school visits. But tweens and teens were the most challenging of my fans. I had to be on top of my game. Sure, reporters may poke and pry in their vain attempts to squeeze a shred of dirt that might expose Spider-Man, but they were pretty stupid. It was easy to manipulate them and I never met one that could match my Web-Slinging acumen.

Occasionally, I encounter a young go-getter who knew that Spidey was married to Mary-Jane Watson-Parker, and they’d confront me with that fact, like it was the clue that would lead them to the Holy Grail (Please! Tell me the name of the gossip magazine J. Jonah Jameson used to publish alongside The Daily Bugle and we can start discussions). But I’d easily swat them aside with far more Webhead lore than they had in their arsenal, leaving them agape.
But the young adults… They were savvy and knew their stuff, and even more tenacious. A battle of wits with them was a true psychological chess match. Sure, the majority were just excited to see Spider-Man live. They’d throw away whatever “cool” pretensions they’d developed in school and allow themselves a lapse back to just being a kid. But some saw knocking down the world-renown superhero phenom as a means to boost their egos. In the end, they, too, begrudgingly got a comic book signed and oftentimes ended up defending Spidey from others who would try to do what they’d attempted moments before. It was challenging, but fun, and these doubting Thomases were perfect for honing my ad-libbing skills and keeping me from getting too cocky.

The students at James Bay Elementary School did not disappoint. They were inquisitive, honest and bright. Helping to temper the veracity of even the most profound quidnunc among the group of fifty was the fact that they were some of the first children in all of Canada to receive the custom comic book that the CACP were handing out. This made them feel especially special, so there was little reason to exalt oneself by attacking Spider-Man, the bearer of the gift that had already raised their self-esteem.

When confronted with a free-range group of youngsters, I try to find a high perch whence I can autograph without worrying about the chaos surrounding me. The costume’s limited vision already raised my hackles when amid an unfettered gathering, so attaining a position of safety and control made for a less stressful situation. Few have been the times when I’ve had a kid punch me, but why take the chance of some misguided youth pulling a Mark David Chapman? Besides, the spectacle of Spider-Man hunkered over a gaggle of gleeful groupies makes for enticing photo fodder for the local rag. Thus I found myself atop a van in the school’s parking lot whilst the precocious yutes peppered me with questions and handing me their comic books to sign.

I discovered later, after Eric had sent me a press packet from the junket—whence the few scanned Xerox pictures in the blog derive—that a picture of the aforementioned scene of Yours Truly signing comics atop a vehicle overhanging a pack of perky pupils did make Victoria’s newspaper, The Evening Telegram. Sadly, it is a bad copy, even muddier than those I’ve included. If any of my Faithful Bloglodytes in the northwest have an actual clipping in their scrapbooks, please send me a scan and I will give appropriate credit and genuflection.

All I had to face now was the 3000-mile flight back to NYC, which included a stop in Toronto where Peter, Eric and I would part ways. I’d have rather confronted a roomful of Bill O’Reillys. Compounding my misery was my impending birthday two days thence. No one likes to spend their day of birth alone and that’s what was awaiting me in my studio apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. Well, that and wall-to-wall Marvel memorabilia, including an inflatable Spidey hanging over the bed. Is it any wonder I was single?! Of course, spending more than half the weekends in a given year on the road only made dating that much more difficult. I was as pathetic as the alias of the character I portrayed. All that was missing was a doting aunt.

Perhaps sensing my reluctance to go home, Eric asked if I’d like to spend the weekend in Toronto with him and leave Monday morning. In truth, I would have jumped at the chance even without the dire circumstances. One regret throughout the trip was how little time Eric and I had to hang out. He said he’d handle the changes in my schedule with the airline, then surprised me with an upgrade to first class. It was his way of thanking me for the good job I’d done. I could’ve kissed him. I’d never traveled first class, and to this day, have not done so again. I still remember the meal: thinly sliced, smoked Norwegian salmon, filet mignon and a strawberry mousse served in a square bowl made of white chocolate; plus all the wine I could drink!

“That is not a picture of my web-shooter...”

But the best part was the leg room. As I am 6' 2", space is a premium for me when flying. I can’t afford Business never mind First Class, so I have to take my chances with what little room the airlines provide in Coach. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to lower my tray table without shattering my patellas. And if the passenger in front of me is especially rotund, I’m doomed. Airplane seats have about as much support as Anthony Weiner and any above-average–seized person forces the flimsy structures back even further. And that’s before they employ the reclining feature… OUCH! My trip across Canada was fraught with flight accommodations of varying degrees of small, so the ability to luxuriate throughout the six-hour return trip was sheer bliss.

The Conroy men: older son, Ed, Eric and younger son, Peter

I also finally got the chance to know Peter, who was seated next to me. During the junket, he was understandably quiet. Representing youngsters across the country amid a bevy of flashing cameras and inquiring reporters is heady stuff for a thirteen-year-old. And he wasn’t wearing a mask! Still, he soldiered on without losing his composure, which spoke volumes for his character, albeit unassuming and shy. With the spotlight turned off, he was a fun, mischievous kid. So it was no surprise we hit it off.

The “west and wewaxation” continued at Chez Eric. A case of red, visits to the local pub, another case, scrumptious vittles prepared by the Scottish Lady, still more bottles of vino… overall, relaxing, joyful and one of the best birthdays I’d ever celebrated. And Fiona kept her clothes on the whole time!

Happy birthday to me!

Friday, June 24, 2011

RIP: Gene Colan 1926–2011

Gene Colan with a recreation of the iconic cover art
from Iron Man #1

Faithful Bloglodytes, please forgive this interruption in the blog programming. The conclusion to “Northern Exposure” will appear in the ensuing days. But I wanted to take a brief moment to pay my respects to one of comicbookdom’s greatest artists, Gene Colan, who passed away last night.

Gene may not have laid the foundation for the Marvel Universe, but he was certainly influential in helping make the company the success it is today. His Marvel debut came in 1966 on the Iron Man series in Tales of Suspense #73 (ToS) under the pseudonym Adam Austin (Good friend Mort Todd reminded me that “the Genial One started at Timely-Atlas-Marvel in 1949 on Captain America’s Weird Tales and did loads of horror through the 50s.” The company, however, was not Marvel Comics at that time, and Colan did not gain prominence until his Silver Age return.). This pen name was short-lived and merely to hide his relationship with The House of Ideas from DC with whom he was also working at the time. But Colan’s work was so unique that even Homer Simpson could have figured out Adam Austin’s alias.

Colan held long distinguished runs on the Golden Avenger’s aforementioned original adventures in ToS and the first few issues of Shellhead’s eponymous title thereafter; Sub-Mariner; Daredevil; Dr. Strange and Howard the Duck. But it is his work on Tomb of Dracula for which he is most revered.

Colan created the look of Blade the Vampire Hunter, introduced in Tomb of Dracula

Surprisingly, I was initially not a fan. Colan’s style was unlike anything I’d seen as a young’un. My artistic taste buds had yet to mature. But Colan’s rich, detailed pencils; the fluidity of his actions; the atmosphere of every panel; quickly won me over and proved to be instrumental in developing my love of Surrealism and artistic visions far outside the norm, like the stylings of Bill Sienkiewicz, Jon J. Muth and Skottie Young.

Colan returned to DC in the 80s, working on such series as Night Force, Jemm, Son of Saturn and Silverblade about a B-movie actor who can become the roles he used to portray; an obvious favorite of mine. This full-page splash from issue #9 is a proud addition to my collection.

Sadly, I never had the pleasure of meeting Colan during my days gigging in the Personal Appearance Department at Marvel. It was only many years later that I met the man at a Big Apple Convention. I was actually working the show so was able to fawn all over the artist without fear of the show’s security escorting me out of the building.

I introduced Wondrous Audrey to Colan when she stopped by to see me, telling her how much I loved his work and showing her examples from the stack for sale on his table, which I forlornly flipped through, knowing I was in no position to buy anything. Not that his stuff was insanely priced—it was mind-staggeringly cheap, considering the source—but I had recently lost my job and could ill-afford to buy coverless copies of the individual comics whence the art came, never mind the art itself.

Imagine my delight and surprise, when I received a piece of classic Daredevil #34 art from The Wondrous One that Christmas. She’d purchased it right under my nose at the convention… sigh

A few more years later I met Colan again at the second annual New York ComiCon. I was in a better position to purchase something but hadn’t brought enough cash or my checkbook. Fortunately, Colan was kind enough to agree to set aside the Howard the Duck Magazine page I wanted with the stipulation that I send him the check the week following the show.

He also offered to send me an autographed copy of the newly released—and gorgeous—Secrets and Shadows: The Art & Life of Gene Colan by TwoMorrows Publishing for twenty dollars (The book retails for $44.95!), which he would send with the artwork. he didn’t even ask for postage & handling, but I added additional money to cover those costs.

Despite failing health and increasingly poor eyesight—he was down to one working eye and that just barely—Colan continued to do commissions without a hint of his talent waning.

I think tonight I’ll read Secrets and Shadows.

Colan would’ve liked that.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Northern Exposure, Part I: Who Was that Masked Man?

Not long after my jaunt to St. John’s, Canada, to help sell the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) on the idea of financially backing a line of customized, Spider-Man, PSA—Public Service Announcement—comic books to educate the country’s youth on the evils of drugs, cigarettes and alcohol; the safety of bicycle helmets; and other important issues (see “Chill St. John’s,” Parts I and II), I was appointed to participate in a whirlwind, five-day, four-city, cross-country press tour to officially announce the program to the Canadian populace and unveil the cover to the first book in the series.

The million-dollar–plus joint program, with the Alliance for a Drug-Free Canada and Health and Welfare Canada, kicked off on December 3, 1990 in Toronto, and the schedule was unforgiving. An early-morning press event kicked off each day—in the case of Toronto, there were two such dog-and-pony shows, one on the heels of the other—at the completion of which I was rushed to the airport to catch a flight to the next city for the following morning’s media circus act.

In the penultimate city, a visit to the local children’s hospital was scheduled. At that point in the tour, when the subsequent and climactic jaunt was a mere ferry ride away, my stops became less like that of a convict on the lam and more like that of a visiting foreign dignitary, which was not too far from the truth, albeit without the motorcades and bodyguards. Then it was back on a plane to Toronto.

I’m knackered just remembering the whole affair.

I agreed to spend the Friday night prior to the Saturday kick-off at the home of the visionary behind the program, Eric. Even given the brief time we’d worked together in St. John’s, we’d formed a strong friendship. Of course, spending time with a man’s scantily clad wife will do that (I told you to see “Chill St. John’s,” Part I and II!). Come to think of it, staging an accidental encounter with one’s lovely wife in sexy lingerie is a clever way to guarantee fealty in a potential colleague. Even the purest of souls would be drawn to work with the temptress’s hubby, even if only on a subconscious level. And when I think of some of the stunts for which Eric “volunteered” me in the ensuing years in which I gladly participated… Hmm…

This photo of Fiona—The Scottish Lady, as Eric so fondly calls her—was taken recently and sent to me by Eric with the express purpose of using them... AND with Fiona’s blessing!

Eric lived in Scarborough, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, in the sort of picturesque, wood-shrouded, warm and inviting dwelling one might find in a Frost poem or Currier & Ives print. My lodgings were not in the main house, but above the oversized two-car garage; a cozy apartment with pull-out couch, entertainment center, log-burning stove and bathroom with walk-in shower. It would prove to be my home-away-from-home on many a Canadian adventure to follow.

It wasn’t especially unusual for Marvel’s Personal Appearance performers to stay at the home of a sponsor. Most of the actors who’d built a rapport with certain clients held no qualms about doing so. It proved to be a symbiotic relationship: The graciousness of the actor guaranteed their getting the job and defrayed the appearance’s cost, which in turn helped make it possible for the client to book the gig in the first place. Since Eric would be joining me throughout our grand cross-continental trip, the move also ensured our mutual arrival at the appointed time and location of the opening ceremonies.

Also accompanying us would be Eric’s thirteen-year-old son, Peter. While his father was wracking his brains to come up with a surefire method to reach kids and thus nail the account, Peter innocently said, “Why don’t you use Spider-Man?” Ah, from the mouths of babes. I can almost hear the angel chorus and see the ray of light that cast down upon Eric as the epiphany struck him and the entire program fell into place.

Erics son, Peter, the mastermind behind the CACP Spider-Man comic program

Although the tour would be taking place the first week in December, the idea of snowfall during the affair never occurred to me. Whilst growing up in Boston, snow was rare that early in the season. Cold? Certainly. The frigid temps descended in October, just in time to ruin one’s Halloween costume by the forced wearing of a snorkel jacket by an overly-concerned mother. Had I been more astute, I would’ve embraced the moment and gone out as an Inuit with the family Siberian Husky towing me around the neighborhood on my Radio Flyer. As for the chill, what need I worry? No one would be silly enough to schedule a press event outside in December, not even a Canuck.

You’d think I’d learn…

As it turned out, the press part of the Toronto leg was scheduled to follow a grand announcement in Nathan Phillips Square located directly in front of City Hall. So much for not having to worry about the cold. As for snow—hah! Brisk it may have been, but the skies were clear and the sun was shining. It was the type of crisp autumn day where everything appears more clearly defined, like an animated cell atop a painted background.

Still, the temp would be a problem. Spandex offers little in the way of insulation and seeing as this was a city government event, complete with the mayor or Burgermeister or whatever it is Canucks have, and a retinue of Mounties, I held little hope of it ending before I suffered hypothermia and my wobbly bits had contracted and hardened into colorful agates. It didn’t help that my hosts kept asking me if I was going to be warm enough in the suit. No, I would not, thank you very much. Maybe you shouldn’t schedule outdoor events in December. Canada isn’t exactly an equatorial country, y’know! Of course by the look of the lightweight jackets and loose-fitting attire of the locals, one would never have guessed it was literally freezing.

Fortunately, a member of my posse offered me a sweatshirt, a promotional gew-gaw of a recent city-sponsored event—“Take a moose to work day” or some such—with a garish design of fluorescent pink, yellow and lime-green on a stark white canvas that clashed with the classic Spider-Man palette. I was loathe to wear anything, but had little choice. Perhaps sensing my concern—more likely seeing what a dodo I looked like in the sweatshirt—my police escort offered me his jacket as I made my way from the office in which I donned the red-and-blue and to the building’s lobby where I would await my cue. Since the CACP was a major part of the campaign, it made perfect sense for Spidey to show his allegiance by wearing a police officer’s coat. Gone or ignored by me during all this were the overheard snippets of conversation among my entourage; worrying smidgens of “a fast-approaching blizzard” and “record snowfall.” Must be talking about some other part of Canada; there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

While the mayor did the whole suck-up-to-his-constituents thing, I hid just inside the building behind one of the towering, floor-to-ceiling columns that dotted the lobby, to ensure the optimal amount of delighted surprise in the audience when I appeared, which wasn’t easy. The entry was surrounded on three sides—including the doors—by glass. Any bored attendees, who decided to take a walk-about would see me in a flash. And given the endless drone of each successive government official, the odds of that possibility happening increased with each brown-nosed introduction to the next Mucky-Muck on the agenda.

You’d think I’d be worrying about my speech—not that I had one. I was once again left to my own devices. My hosts seemed unconcerned, probably believing I was prepared ahead of time. And Eric was AWOL. He left me to ensure the press event afterward was set up properly. I could have declared war, done my best Dudley Do-Rite impersonation or started yodeling “When I’m calling you-oo-oo-oo…” like Nelson Eddy. It was a testament to Eric’s trust in me that he didn’t fret over what I would say. He was assured from my behavior in St, John’s that I’d be fine. And he knew the power of the costume would forgive any faux pas I might make.

Finally, I was introduced. I bounded out the front doors through the gathering throngs of reporters, TV crews, government Nabobs and confused tourists, and ascended the platform on which the speeches were conducted. After giving generous thanks to my hosts, followed by the prerequisite opening joke about swinging to Canada—“I thought I was going to be late. Once I left Manhattan, I ran out of things to swing from, so I had to hop on a bus!”—to loosen/wake up the crowd, I spoke a few words on what an honor it was to be a part of helping my Canadian fans and how I looked forward to meeting them on my journey across their beautiful country. It was succinct and genuine, and would make for a nice spot on the evening news cast in that slot after the tragedies, killings, burglaries, latest celebrity meltdown—you know, the feel-good stuff—and before the sports and weather, only if such “cheery” events were few and there wasn’t some sort of weather calamity, like, say, a massive blizzard!

I was soon back in the warmth of City Hall changing into my civvies so as not to be late for the second stage of the kick-off. The press conference took place a few blocks away at a local restaurant called the Organ Grinder, the décor and fare of which could have passed for any TGI Friday’s—now simply Friday’s. In the short time it took me to put my clothes back on and leave City Hall, the sky had turned a disheartening gray. As I entered the eatery, mere moments later, downy flakes the size of tea bags had begun to fall. Still, though my optimism wavered, I was confident there wouldn’t be a problem in the few hours until I’d be on a plane whisking off to Winnipeg for Stage II of the tour. How bad could it get?

(Cue ominous music…)

The restaurant had suspended its afternoon service—Gasp! Where will we get our Illchester cheese-covered, honey-glazed sweet potato fries?!—and closed to the public. Unlike the ubiquitous Friday’s, the Organ Grinder had offered live entertainment. How else to explain the stage at one end of the dining room. The cabaret-style tables were cleared of any dishes, silverware, condiments or specialties signage, leaving nought but a white tablecloth and the chairs. Management hadn’t even bothered to move them to one side, perhaps to more quickly prepare for dinner service once the conference was finished. The room was unlit, save for the stage, which was awash with intense lighting.

Unlike the endless political falderal in front of City Hall, Eric’s presentation was economic, steering quickly to the razzle dazzle of Spider-Man. Unbeknownst to yours truly, Eric had arranged for a group of young children to be present. It was a stroke of genius. Any doubt the muckrakers may have had about the efficacy or cost of the program disappeared the moment I leapt into the room. The children were aflutter with excitement; ubiquitous utterings of “’pider-Man,” delivered in a precocious timber that could melt the heart of the Marquis de Sade, filled the room.

Eric explains the CACP Spider-Man promotion and why it was abruptly cut short after only five of the ten proposed custom comics was produced on his own blog, Drone On.

There were more flashes than at a Brittany Spears sighting—Whew! Glad I (ahem) shaved!—when I made my surprise entrance, making the restaurant seem like Studio 54. The presence of the Web-Slingers wee fans made for excellent camera fodder. I swear I could hear the shutterbugs slavering for a chance to shoot me with the children. To them, a pic of Spider-Man with adorable young ’uns was the next best thing to a dead body. Plus, it would temporarily assuage those annoying goody two-shoes constantly descrying the abundance of feel-bad stories and photos in the paper. I’m sure there were more than a few thinking the presence of a corpse would make the ultimate trifecta. Oh well, there go the Closet fans I had from the media.

Ah, yes, my friends the media. To be fair most were “fair and balanced” with their reporting on Spider-Man’s activities. And this was true wherever my adventures took me, The U.S., Canada and England alike. But it was the occasional smarmy one that soured the whole bunch; those handful of would-be Walter Winchells who were never satisfied with the story set before them, ever digging for an iota of underlying dirt around which they could twist a report into sensationalism. Most commonly, these flibbertigibbits sought the secret identity of the man behind the webbed mask.

“So who are you,” the enterprising reporter would ask.

“Spider-Man… You know? Superhero, savior of the world, idol of millions… You really need to get out more.” I’d reply with more than a hint of “What are you, an idiot?” in my voice. If the reporter was daring enough to query before his colleagues, I might add “Perhaps one of you could fill him in later. He obviously didn’t get the memo;” always sure to evoke a hearty guffaw and certain to put an abrupt halt to the hapless victim’s line of inquiry, until such time they could corner me by themselves.

“No, who are you really?” They’d continue unfazed, if they did happen to confront me mano a mano, in such a tone as to suggest that I didn’t understand the question.

“I can’t tell you that. I have a secret identity to uphold,” I’d answer. “You must work for the Daily Bugle. Did J. Jonah Jameson send you up here?”

“So you’re not going to tell me…” I’m not sure if this disheartened coda to their fruitless interrogation was meant to guilt me into revelation or simply ease their own conscience into accepting defeat. Either way it was pathetic.

“Sorry; no can do. I’ve got loved ones to protect,” or some such I’d say, before leaping away.

At the Organ Grinder, as I left the stage to confront the media, I beelined it to the table on which a giant replica of the first issue cover of the CACP’s Spider-Man comic program was displayed and perched onto a smaller table abutted against it. I wanted to ensure that any photo-taking or videotaping highlighted the cover, thus emphasizing the reason ye olde Web-Spinner was in Canada, even though many of the resulting questions may not pertain to it. I also tried to steer my answers to the program. I was not asked to do this by the Marvel hierarchy or Eric, and maybe other Spideys might have simply taken questions from the stage and kept their replies pithy and comic-centric.

Marvel’s PR department frowned on the characters making unscripted statements—outside of those relegated to the world of the heroes—to the press. And I would have gotten paid regardless. But I’d seen the press release and wasn’t arrogant or stupid enough to take the intricacies of the program entirely in my hands. Any questions that delved deeper than what was on the hand-outs, I directed to the pertinent parties, usually a member of the CACP. I gotta say it was refreshing making appearances knowing an entire nation’s police force had my back!

After the initial barrage of questioning, the media blockade surrounding me broke up and I was left—finally—to mingle with my wee fans, who stood in earnest on the ring’s outskirts, like the children outside the gates of Willie Wonka’s factory watching the lucky few with golden tickets meet the Master Chocolatier.

One such Cindy Lou Who, who was probably more than two, but still getting used to the whole walking-on-two-legs thing, waited trepidatiously while her peers rushed in with high-fives and handshakes. Seeing her brethren come out of the moment unscathed bolstered her nerves enough that she began to slowly approach on unsteady feet. I held out my hand at arms length and coaxed her soothingly. Time stood still as she painstakingly reached out.

Suddenly, my small admirer was side-swiped by the intrusive leg of a rampaging reporter, barreling around the tables to get his chance at a Pulitzer by confronting Spider-Man one-on-one. The little lass kerplopped on her fanny, more surprised than hurt, and the pioneering muckraker delivered a curt, dismissive, “’Scuse me, sweetie,” with the barest of head swivels in her direction, before turning back to me.

I was appalled and fuming, but retained my composure—at least outside the mask. I wanted to throw the reporter on his ass and deliver a meaningless apology, while rushing to the girl’s aid, but I know doing so would be put a damper on the festivities—to say the least—make Spider-Man persona non grata in Canada and severely damage, if not shatter, the CACP’s cause. And it would most certainly freak out the child. She had barely gotten up the courage to touch the Web-Crawler’s outstretched hand. Imagine how she’d react if I jumped forward to help. From her POV, it would be nightmarish. Her mien was that of a child who falls and hasn’t yet decided whether to start screaming or not. I was not about to push her over the edge and force her into years of therapy.

I did the only thing I could think of. As soon as he began to utter his first question, I cut him off with a flippant, “Oops! Spider-Senses tingling… Gotta go!” and bound away from the blighter. I certainly wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of an interview. I little feared the possibility of a missed quote. There would be coverage aplenty without this Cretan’s input.

And how misguided of the reporter. The story was directly in front of him. After years of the CACP and government agencies looking for an effective way to teach children and teens about the ramifications of drug-use and other social concerns, this moment of a youngster reaching out to the country’s new vehicle in championing these important causes exemplified the power of the program and spoke volumes to its subsequent efficacy. The dolt probably had to use a dictionary to spell journalistic integrity.

At some point during the dog-and-pony show—Yours Truly being both dog and pony—I noticed that someone had replaced the view outside the large picture window with a white sheet. It caught my eye because of the way the restaurant’s name—emblazoned in garish colors and appropriate circus font—suddenly took on the characteristics of something out of a gallery showing of famous contemporary American artist, Ed Ruscha. A prominent collection of words against a stark background, no longer fighting the animated view of the world beyond the pane.

As I cheated closer during the interview process with the media, I saw to my horror that what was a beautiful, crisp, sunny, though chilly, day only a few hours earlier had transformed into a raging blizzard! The cars parked in front of the building had already become amorphous blobs of snow; the streets were deserted, save for the occasional vehicle crawling slowly through the two-foot–high accumulation; and I could barely see the buildings across the way. I half-expected Yukon Cornelius to come bursting through the front doors at any moment crying “Ain’t a fit night for man nor beast!” And like Santa, I had a flight to catch, only without a reindeer with a mutant illuminated nose to lead the way! But this is Canada. This is their definition of a light dusting, I kept trying to convince myself as the snow was noticeably rising before my eyes in the seconds it took me to ruminate on the matter!

And the time was nigh; nigher than originally planned. Eric sidled up beside me to report that the blizzard was expected to get exponentially worse with every passing moment and I had to leave now in order to get on the one flight that was scheduled to leave for Winnipeg before the airport shut down. The small NBA gym bag containing my civvies had already been moved to a police car awaiting me in front of the restaurant. I had less than an hour to make the forty-minute trek from downtown Toronto to the airport in a snowstorm that would make the Winter Warlock—keeping to the Rankin-Bass theme—call in sick.

But what about my luggage? I asked. There’d be no time to retrieve and transport it. Neither my single piece—a larger over-the-shoulder carry-on—nor Eric or his son would be going to Winnipeg with me as planned. The next morning’s press conference would be marshaled by Winnipeg Police Chief Herb Stephen, who would be a the lone person accompanying me from Toronto, and Yours Truly. My luggage would be directed straight to Vancouver, where I’d reconnect with Eric and Peter. I’d have nothing with me, but literally the clothes on my back and a Spider-Man costume!

Eric and several officer’s hustled me out of the Organ Grinder like Justin Bieber being escorted out of a mall concert. For a split second I became the Flash, as I bolted from the front doors of the restaurant to the police cruiser, diving into the back seat where my gym bag sat waiting. Had I slipped or my handlers not opened the door beforehand, I would have risked frostbite. Blessedly, my driver had cranked up the heat in advance. I waited until the vehicle had moved away from the building before shedding the red-and-blues and putting on my clothes. Not that anyone would have seen anything had I not delayed my changing. The visibility was so bad I could have mooned the picture window of the Organ Grinder, slapped my hairy ass right up against the backseat window, and no one within would have noticed.

Herb Stephen sat shotgun as the cruiser navigated through the storm. Miraculously, we arrived at the airline entrance. I wanted to kiss the driver, but there was no time, as the Chief and I were hurried through the terminal to the gate and onto the plane. It was surreal. I felt like John Cusack in 2012, decades before he made his fateful escape in the movie. The flight was packed. There was no ambiguity where our seats were—the only aisle and window seat unoccupied—as we entered the cabin. Dozens of faces stared at us, various expressions of frustration and relief mixed with more than a dash of curiosity.

It was then that I realized what a provocative portrait Chief Stephen and I made. We weren’t just a young man and older adult arriving late for a flight. Stephen was in full police regalia. I was a sight in my disheveled, hastily-donned-in-the-back-of-a-car civvies, matted-down-from-hours-in-a-Spider-Man-suit hair, and my drawn, exhausted mien, carrying a wee Leprechaun-green gym bag. Goodness knows how long the flight was delayed waiting for us. And we were obviously traveling together, having arrived in tandem and taking seats beside each other. Passengers probably thought I was an undercover cop or, more likely, a felon being returned to Winnipeg to face my crimes. Regardless, I was a person of import.

Suddenly, my impossible flight to Newfoundland in the back of a cargo plane a few months previous (see “Chill—”, aw, never mind!) made sense. I had the entire police force of Canada—and its political power—watching over me. There was no way I was not going to get to St. John’s that night. If they had to pull George Kennedy out of retirement (Honorary ten loonies to any of my Faithful Bloglodytes who get that reference) and have him pilot the Spruce Goose, they would have made it so. That evening in Toronto, the lives of a few score people didn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to getting Spider-Man to Winnipeg. And Mother Nature be damned, as well!

Me? Given the circumstance, I would rather have walked. Ours was the only flight scheduled for take-off. And from the appearance of the tarmac, which looked more inhospitable, desolate and perma-frosted than the ice planet of Hoth, I’d say there hadn’t been much activity for hours. At least, I wouldn’t have to be kept warm in the body of a recently-deceased Tauntaun (They’ll be a quiz in the morning). Was I the only one who didn’t think it was a good idea to be taking off in this mess?!!

NEXT: Go west, young Spider-Man!